Don and Charlene Willis of Smyrna have never been the type to spend an afternoon poking around an art museum, but now they wouldn’t think of missing their monthly visits to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
They are regular participants in “Musing Together,” an art tour designed for those in early stage Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Care partners are also invited to the free program, which is a partnership of the High Museum and the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter.
“We both thoroughly enjoy it,” said Charlene. Don, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014, “loves it,” she added.
The tours are led by art educator Amanda Williams, who selects a theme, then leads the group through various galleries to view and talk about specific works of art related to that theme. She creates a safe space for them to express their opinions, ask questions, and just interact and make friends. For caregivers, it’s an opportunity to get out of their set routines.
“We just want them to come and enjoy themselves,” Williams said.
There’s a lot of laughter, and a lot of learning, too.
The program, which started in March, is offered the first Wednesday of the month from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Both non-profits are still trying to figure out what works and tweak what doesn’t. Museum staffers were trained by the Alzheimer’s Association on how to respond appropriately to visitors with dementia. The group is kept small, no more than 20 at a time, and they don’t go into galleries that are overstimulating. A staff member from the Alzheimer’s Association is also present throughout the program to assist if needed.
Art has multiple benefits for the brain, providing good cognitive stimulation in different areas, said Kara Johnson, an Atlanta Alzheimer’s Association care consultant. But the program is more than an art history lesson. It’s an opportunity to build friendships with others going through the same journey. Participants are encouraged to engage in conversations about the artwork, as well as share their life stories.
“A lot of people feel very isolated when they get a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. They often self-isolate because they’re afraid of making a mistake. This is a safe way for people to be part of the community,” Johnson said.
Williams said she has seen group members get very comfortable with one another, developing a level of safety and non-judgment. There are no wrong answers in their discussions. “They enjoy one another’s company,” she said.
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To join the group, participants must go through the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter, and be evaluated for early stage dementia. Johnson said it is important to put people together who are in the same stage of the progressive disease so they can form friendships and have opportunities to socialize.
“We want them to all be going through the same stages together,” Johnson said. “This way, care partners meet other care partners. A lot of them meet before the program and go out to lunch together.”
The Willises already know the other regulars who attend “Musing Together” through other support programs and groups for early stage Alzheimer’s. Charlene said the camaraderie has made a positive difference in their lives.
“We have a community of friends who are also going through the same journey, and we enjoy being with one another,” she said.
The state Alzheimer’s Association sponsors walking programs and lunch social groups, among other activities for those in the early stages of the disease. The non-profit organization encourages early diagnosis because treatments are more effective in the early stages and could help delay the onset of symptoms, Johnson said.
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